After finally arriving at my sister's group home in rural Minnesota after more than a decade's absence:
Joy looks much as I remember her. Brown hair cut short. Pale skin. Square face with prominent jaw and brow. She is sitting in a wheel chair with a large tray table. Her arms and legs are thin and her feet are so tiny you’d think they’d been bound. I avoid her eyes for a while because it is her eyes that hurt. They are deep-set and astonishingly blue–my mother’s eyes and more.
My mother was drop-dead gorgeous as a young woman and for many decades after most women settle in to being merely attractive “for their age,” she was a knock-out. A mother turned runway model for a brief time. She loved being beautiful and prized physical beauty in others. Joy was a beautiful baby. The only one of us born with dark, curly hair. She had flawless skin and she had those eyes.
I try to make eye contact. She seems to look past and through me. What does she see and how much of what she sees does her brain register and process? Impossible to know. One caretaker tells me stories about her mischief–how she likes to pinch and occasionally laughs when she catches the caretaker off-guard.
I honestly don’t remember too much more of that first visit. I remember the La-Z-Boy recliners in the living room, the aquarium of tropical fish, a cat and a gazebo out back. I remember Joy’s bedroom with its white gilded furniture and lavender walls. I remember that Joy startled easily when I touched her shoulder without speaking first. I remember thinking I may as well have been a stranger. Joy was my sister but I knew nothing. I remember speaking softly to her and caressing her hair. It was all I could think to do.
And the staff? They put the coffee on, offered me a cup and gave me my sister’s file to peruse. They were happy I had come and, as far as I could tell, resolutely non-judgmental about my decades of absence. The sad truth is that few people in their care have even yearly visitors. Still, I am horrified to learn that my parents had neglected to send forwarding addresses when they moved. Every contact number in Joy’s file was outdated. Nothing but dead ends. My name or that of my older sister? Nowhere to be found.
This, at least, was something I could do. I could be the one at the other end of the line